A native of Danville, Carper graduated from the Ohio State University. Serving as a Naval Flight Officer in the U.S. Navy from 1968 until 1973, he saw active duty in the Vietnam War. He remained in the U.S. Naval Reserve for another 18 years and retired with the rank of Captain. Upon receiving his MBA from the University of Delaware in 1975, Carper went to work for the State of Delaware in its economic development office. He was elected state Treasurer, serving from 1977 to 1983 and leading the development of Delaware's first cash management system.
Encouraged by local politicians, Carper successfully ran for Delaware's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982. He served five terms in the House, where he chaired the Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization. In 1992 he arranged a "swap" with term-limited Governor Michael Castle, and the two were easily elected to each other's seats. Carper governed for two terms as a moderate, business-oriented "New Democrat", following the lead of the two previous Republican governors. He successfully avoided the closing of a General Motors automobile operation and won a bid for the headquarters of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. He led a tax-reduction campaign and helped improve the state's credit rating from among the worst in the nation to an excellent "AAA". He pushed for standards-based education, among other reforms.
A groundswell of Democratic turnout in 2000 ensured Carper's election to the U.S. Senate, where he is now serving his second term. As a senator he serves as one of four Deputy Democratic Whips. On the Senate Homeland Security Committee he chairs the Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, and on the Environment and Public Works Committee he chairs the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety.